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The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford

Beth Tompkins Bates

Publication Year: 2012

In the 1920s, Henry Ford hired thousands of African American men for his open-shop system of auto manufacturing. This move was a rejection of the notion that better jobs were for white men only. In ###The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford#, Beth Tompkins Bates explains how black Detroiters, newly arrived from the South, seized the economic opportunities offered by Ford in the hope of gaining greater economic security. As these workers came to realize that Ford’s anti-union "American Plan" did not allow them full access to the American Dream, their loyalty eroded, and they sought empowerment by pursuing a broad activist agenda. This, in turn, led them to play a pivotal role in the United Auto Workers' challenge to Ford's interests. In order to fully understand this complex shift, Bates traces allegiances among Detroit’s African American community as reflected in its opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, challenges to unfair housing practices, and demands for increased and effective political participation. This groundbreaking history demonstrates how by World War II Henry Ford and his company had helped kindle the civil rights movement in Detroit without intending to do so. Beth Tompkins Bates is professor emerita at Wayne State University and author of ###Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945#.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-11

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pp. xi-xiv

The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, a history of a community in formation, could not have been written without the generous contributions of a community of scholars, activists, scholar-activists, achivists, autoworkers, colleagues, family, and friends. While I cannot possibly recognize all who helped make this effort possible, I want to name a ...

Abbreviations Used in the Text

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pp. xv-17

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pp. 1-14

This is a story about Detroit, a city whose name evoked the promise of America as the land of opportunity in the early years of the twentieth century. Henry Ford promoted that image with the progressive industrial policies and maverick business practices he put into place at the Ford Motor Company (FMC). The unfolding narrative is anchored to ...

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ONE: With the Wind at Their Backs: Migration to Detroit

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pp. 15-38

Early in the twentieth century, the social, economic, and political landscape of Detroit was dramatically transformed as the automotive industry turned this medium-sized city, known for its peace and beauty, into a whirlwind of activity. The siren of new Detroit was “motion . . . the motion of . . . life and energy and unceasing prosperity.” People were drawn to ...

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TWO: Henry Ford Ushers in a New Era for Black Workers

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pp. 39-68

Rumor had it that “workin’ in Mr. Ford’s place” in Detroit was the route to inclusion for African Americans in the modern industrial American economy. Henry Ford’s promise of a Five Dollar Day was not tainted with discrimination; blacks were paid a wage equal to that of whites. During the late teens, “the name Ford became synonymous with northern oppor-...

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THREE: The Politics of Inclusion and the Construction of a New Detroit

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pp. 69-91

Once they were employed, African Americans put down roots in Black Bottom, the highly congested neighborhood that increasingly became one of the few areas where blacks were allowed to live. Segregated living may have narrowed the range of possibilities but not the determination to explore other ways to expand opportunities. Loyalty to Henry Ford re-...

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FOUR: Drawing the Color Line in Housing, 1915–1930

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pp. 92-114

The city that the town fathers once hoped would be a model for clean and decent living—a master plan for municipal reform in an industrial setting—began to split open at the seams in the early twenties. Although Detroit had escaped the large-scale riots that had broken out in other cities, such as in East Saint Louis in 1917 or Washington, D.C., and Chicago ...

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FIVE: The Politics of Unemployment in Depression-Era Detroit, 1927–1931

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pp. 115-143

The Ossian Sweet case made a hero out of Frank Murphy within the black community by reinforcing African Americans’ push for inclusion and broadening their political horizons. At the same time allegiance to Henry Ford, the other anchor of black Detroit’s American plan for full participation, remained high in 1926 and 1927 as competition within the auto ...

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SIX: Henry Ford at a Crossroads: Inkster and the Ford Hunger March

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pp. 144-171

By the end of 1931, Henry Ford’s image was tarnished. Murphy’s re-election as mayor of Detroit was not just a win for the forces of a new order, but also a loss for Henry Ford. More was required to clean up Ford’s image in terms of his responsibilities toward unemployed Ford workers than the $5 million dollar loan to the city that he underwrote. A few days ...

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SEVEN: Behind the Mask of Civility: Black Politics in Detroit, 1932–1935

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pp. 172-198

As the depression deepened, political and material circumstances inspired black Detroiters to look in new directions for a way out of their second-class status. On one level, the black community appeared to be much the same as it had been in the late twenties. African American men lucky enough to...

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EIGHT: Charting a New Course for Black Workers

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pp. 199-222

As accommodationist politics began to fade and the protest politics of a new crowd took center stage, the Detroit Civic Rights Committee (crc) broadened its agenda. What began as an effort to challenge the exclusion of African Americans from municipal jobs expanded into a larger crusade for jobs in the private sector as well. To take its challenge to the ...

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NINE: Black Workers Change Tactics, 1937–1941

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pp. 223-250

...(NNC, held in Philadelphia in October 1937, followed closely in Detroit by those listening to a live radio broadcast, emphasized the role black self-reliance must play in gaining an equal place in America.1 As A. Philip Randolph, president of the NNC, said, “The task of realizing full citizenship for the Negro people is largely in the hands of the Negro people themselves.”2...

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pp. 251-256

Henry Dord transformed the United States and the world by revolutionizing the way we make things. But the man so responsible for reconstructing industrial production also transformed human relations. As he observed, “Power and machinery, money and goods, are useful only as they set us free to live. They are but means to an end.” He hoped the success of ...


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pp. 257-308


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pp. 309-334


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pp. 335-343

E-ISBN-13: 9781469601571
E-ISBN-10: 1469601575
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807835647
Print-ISBN-10: 0807835641

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 20 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 815388765
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford

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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Michigan -- Detroit -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Michigan -- Detroit -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Migration, Internal -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Detroit (Mich.) -- Social conditions.
  • Detroit (Mich.) -- Race relations.
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